Greater Greater Washington

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We're moving to California because DC schools can't or won't serve our son's special needs

This summer my family is moving to San Francisco so that my disabled son can attend kindergarten. While we are excited about the next chapter of our lives in the Bay Area, we expected until recently to live in DC, and in Georgetown, the rest of our lives. Unfortunately, that plan changed when we ran into obstruction and hostility from DC Public Schools and local private schools regarding our son's special needs.

Photo by Christopher Chan on Flickr.

My 5-year-old son, Martin, is the joy of our lives. He is the sweetest little boy you will ever meet, with a passion for life that inspires me every day. Martin also has epilepsy.

In the past year, Martin has had over 2,500 seizures. Most of them are drop seizures, in which he drops to the ground like a puppet whose strings are cut. After every drop seizure, he gets right back up and resiliently soldiers on—coloring, playing with toys, eating his food, undeterred.

When the seizures began breaking through his medication last year, my wife and I spent every evening on our laptops, immersing ourselves in pediatric neurology. Helping our boy fight seizures was our primary activity, at least it was until we discovered how much we would have to fight DC Public Schools to secure his rights to an equal education.

Coping with epilepsy

Martin has miraculously not regressed cognitively despite his seizures, but must be kept safe. He has had drop seizures in which his face collides into his cereal bowl during breakfast, into the toilet bowl while going to the bathroom, into the sand table while playing at his preschool.

After several bloody and bruised faces, we made the difficult decision to put a helmet with face guard on our boy. Even with his helmet, he is still not safe on stairs, which pose a real risk to his life and limb.

Martin attends an amazing preschool, St, Columba's Nursery School in Tenleytown, whose teachers unflinchingly provide him any accommodation needed to keep him safe and help him learn with the other children. They go far beyond what the law requires.

This past year, we asked DC Public Schools (DCPS) for an Individual Education Plan (IEP) ahead of his entrance into kindergarten this fall.

An IEP is a list of the accommodations that a public school provides to ensure a child's civil right to equal access to the curriculum. A federal law, the 1975 Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), protects the civil right of children with disabilities to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE).

DCPS, through its Early Stages division, initially committed to including a dedicated aide in Martin's IEP to keep him safe. They were unable to put him in a building without stairs. Instead, an aide would hold his hand on the stairs or take him to elevators, as well as logging his seizure count and caring for him when he injures himself.

"Martin will obviously get an aide; he's dropping 10 times per day," was the assessment of our IEP team lead. "Just give us a letter from his neurologist, and we'll include an aide in his IEP." We provided letters from two neurologists, and expected to send Martin to DCPS kindergarten this fall.

DCPS throws up a wall

Two weeks after our IEP meeting at DCPS Early Stages, I received a startling call from our IEP team lead that would signal the beginning of the end of our time as DC residents. "I'm so sorry to have to tell you, apparently we were not authorized to put an aide in Martin's IEP. So we've taken it out."

She was unable to explain why Martin's IEP team couldn't give him an aide. She said to me, "I wish I had answers to your questions. I'm so sorry." When I pointed out that, by law, only members of an IEP team can determine what accommodations go into an IEP, she agreed, and repeated, "I'm so, so sorry."

A week later I received a call from Amanda Parks-Bianco, a DCPS special education administrator who manages all dedicated aides, asking me what my questions were. Parks-Bianco said, "Dedicated aides and nurses are never needed to provide FAPE. If you accept our offer of FAPE, then aides and nurses are additional services that your child may qualify for."

When I cited several court decisions stating that IDEA does sometimes require dedicated aides, she insisted that "IDEA is vague." Several times Parks-Bianco told me, "I know I must sound like a horrible person."

Private schools give the cold shoulder too

My wife and I retained an attorney, who advised us to find a private school that would keep Martin safe. We would then sue DCPS to pay the tuition. However, we were unable to find a general education private school in DC that would accept a child with uncontrolled seizures.

For example, we visited Lowell, known as one of the most inclusive private schools in town. When we mentioned to the Head of School that our son has 10 drop seizures per day, her response was, "You would need to purchase tuition insurance." She then explained that "a school with a smaller student-teacher ratio might be better, with more eyes on your son to keep him safe."

The Lowell Head of School never technically violated the federal law against discrimination towards those with disabilities, but made it clear that my child was not welcome at her school.

We visited Sheridan, also known as an inclusive private school. While they said they embraced children with disabilities, their building is still not ADA-compliant, requiring children of all ages to walk up and down a long staircase with no elevator. When we noticed the facilities they had invested in, such as a campus in the Shenandoah Valley, their true priorities seemed clear.

We considered suing DCPS to accommodate my child with an aide to keep him safe at school, a suit that our attorney said we had a 95% chance of winning. But he also said we would likely have to retain counsel multiple times over the years, as DCPS would try to remove the aide from Martin's IEP.

My wife and I were considering moving to California last fall in order to try a strain of medical marijuana that had helped other children control their seizures. A friend from San Francisco had been urging me to consider schools there that were inclusive of children with disabilities.

In March, I flew to San Francisco, and within a month enrolled Martin in a private school that embraces children with disabilities and was committed to keeping our son safe. Even our special education attorney recommended that we accept the offer of the school in San Francisco.

My family is privileged to have the means to move when our son's civil rights are denied and physical safety threatened by DC Public Schools. DC is full of thousands of special education students who face the obstacles our son faced and have far fewer options.

How can DC be a truly inclusive city?

While we are sad to leave our adopted hometown of 16 years, we are excited to embark on a new journey. We feel deep gratitude to the Bay Area for its inclusive culture, and hope to give back in spades.

One of the hardest parts of leaving DC, besides the friends we leave behind, is walking away from the fight to make DC a just city whose success is shared broadly. As DC's amenities have grown over the past decade, so have the growing gaps in wealth and educational outcomes in our city. This creates a moral imperative to advocate that we can either hide from or accept.

It's easy for elected officials in DC and other east cost cities to promote the influx of new residents, then take credit for the improved joblessness numbers and school test scores that inevitably follow.

My deepest fear for DC has been that in 30 years, all 8 wards will have stellar economic and education numbers, but those numbers will be the result of turning over half the population in the city.

There are few battles more critical to creating an inclusive DC than the fight for the 13,000 students, predominantly poor, who receive public special education.

DC can move forward in one of two ways—by displacing DC's recipients of special education, or including them.


Could Metro allow bicycles during rush hour?

Yesterday, San Francisco's BART system lifted its long-standing ban on allowing bicycles on rush-hour trains. Given bicycling's popularity in the DC area, and the Metro system's packed park and ride lots, perhaps a similar reform would work here.

Photo by San Francisco Bicycle... on Flickr.

After a lengthy trial process, BART will allow bikes on all its trains at all times, finally giving people an easy way to cross the San Francisco Bay with a bike. Like Metro, BART is overloaded through the urban core of San Francisco, and there were concerns that bikes would just make things worse.

The three trial periods were progressively more intense. BART allowed bikes on Fridays for a month, then for one full week, then for five full months. The agency wanted to measure how much disruption bicycles would cause and to gauge public support. As it turned out, the concerns were unfounded, and public support was quite high. Crowding did not get worse, and 79 percent of riders wanted to see the ban lifted entirely.

Like BART, Metro doesn't allow bikes during rush hour due to fears of crowding. But if passengers could bring bicycles on the train without inconveniencing others, there's no reason it would be a problem here.

Perhaps WMATA ought to consider a series of trials, too, to gauge how it affects our commutes. Metro is not BART, after all, and so may not be as good a fit. We won't know unless we try.


Zoning shouldn't be used to judge lifestyles

In Greater Washington, we hear all kinds of arguments against new development. But sometimes arguments drift into lifestyle issues: the apartments are too small, the location is too loud, or the tenants wouldn't appropriately invest themselves in the community.

Photo by Joselito Tagarao on Flickr.

While unfair, this might be expected from the public. However, when policymakers start to consider their own preferences when making decisions, as in the region's debate about accessory dwellings, they tread on dangerous ground.

In Berkeley, California, officials are using lifestyle concerns to fight a proposed building with 70 "micro-units." or studio apartments ranging in size between 307 and 344 square feet. The building is close to UC Berkeley, walking distance to a hot commercial strip and BART, and adjacent to major bus routes. It would be built on what is now a fairly ugly vacant lot, and contribute $1.4 million to the city's affordable housing fund. And it would be just 60 feet tall, not much higher than its neighbors.

Nearby neighbors aren't happy with it, citing the height and the proximity to detached housing nearby, which aren't unusual complaints. But they also object to the size of the units and the relative lack of activities in the neighborhood. Zoning commissioner Sophie Hahn concurred, comparing the units to "penitentiary housing" and said there wasn't enough room for "intimacy."

Rendering of the proposed building from the developer.

Though I don't want to speculate more on the concerns of massing and proximity, the others are a damaging sort of condescension.

When I choose where I want to live, I look at a number of factors: price, transit options, proximity to my friends, job, and favorite neighborhood. As a single person who spends most of his time out at work or at some hangout, I'm not so concerned about my home's size. I need a bed, a desk, and a place to make and store food. A studio apartment in the right location will do me fine.

I am representative of one particular niche of potential renters. Other renters will be more concerned about proximity to transit, others about price, and others will want the space to entertain. As we grow our cities, developers should have the flexibility to build units and buildings that cater to the various niches of the rental market. Not everyone wants to live in a Palisades mansion, and not everyone wants to live in a high-rise downtown.

We have our reasons for choosing the places we do, but it's the height of arrogance to assume that our preferences apply universally. So when citizens say that studio apartments are "a new style of tenement housing," I get upset. And when policymakers like Sophie Hahn say studio apartment living is "a bleak, lonely, unhealthy life that I would have a lot of trouble endorsing," that offends me, because she thinks that about my life.

Floorplan of a proposed "micro-unit" apartment.

The purpose of any market is to allow people to make their own decisions about what they want. I think beef tongue is disgusting. I have no idea why anyone would want to eat it. I mean, surely there's something wrong with someone who wants to chew on something that has the texture of their own tongue.

I also hate cilantro; it tastes like someone made nausea into a flavor and called it an herb. But will I advocate to ban these foods? Limit them to certain designated Mexican restaurants, perhaps, Vietnamese restaurants be damned? Of course not; it's preposterous to even consider. I can make my own opinions without asking others to agree with me. That's freedom.

So it's not the place of any zoning commission to pass judgment on the lifestyles of the people who live in certain kinds of housing. Their purpose is to determine whether a project meets the zoning code, whether its visual and traffic impacts will unduly harm surrounding neighbors, and whether it will be a safe and sanitary place to live. Nor is it their purpose to determine whether a project is financially viable or not. It's the developer's job to determine that.

And in a free society, it's nobody's job but mine to determine whether my lifestyle is a bleak and lonely one or not.

Once government steps into personal preference, it becomes a nanny, tut-tutting our choices of home and neighborhood. Sophie Hahn, and the neighbors whom she agrees with, should stick to a critique of the building itself, not the people, like me, who they think are too depressed to live anywhere else.

A version of this piece appeared in The Greater Marin.



This parody flyer recently appeared on a San Francisco street, but could almost apply verbatim to most DC-area debates over road space—Glover Park's median, the M Street cycletrack, and many more.


    SAVE MASONIC!!! Don't let the UN make San Francisco a ONE WORLD GOVERNMENT EXPERIMENT! THEY WANT TO TAKE YOUR CAR AWAY! Did you know that besides countless meetings, mailers and community outreach the SFMTA is trying to SNEAK IN a redesign of Masonic Ave to MAKE IT SAFE FOR ALL USERS?? This is an OUTRAGE! Sure we skipped all the meetings and didn't read the mailers but AUTOMOBILE PRIORITY UBER ALLES!!!

    Despite a number of crashes, deaths and accidents, this street is TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY SAFE! Shout down and talk over anyone who disagrees with you and your made up FACTS!

    Don't let the BIG LIE* that over 700 people have been hit by cars in the past year in San Francisco fool you! MASONIC is as safe as a kittens belly fur!
    90% of the people who agree with us and the FACTS THAT WE JUST MADE UP SUPPORT OUR CONCLUSIONS!! RAGE CAPS!!!

    A FLOOD of frustrated drivers whose trip now takes 5 minutes and 15 seconds instead of just 5 minutes will go on a KILLING SPREE!!! YOU MAY BE THEIR NEXT VICTIM!!! LIKE SUDDEN IMPACT! YOU WILL BE IMPACTED! ALL DAY EVERY DAY! Analogous to what happens when a speeding automobile strikes you when you are crossing the road.

    Write letters as though you have a fifth grade education! Grammar be DAMNED! WE KNOW the County Stoopid-visors are doing this TO YOU because GREED! Their evil intent, their INSIDIOUSNESS and MEAN-SPIRITEDNESS is matched only by that of... THE CYCLISTS!!


    Keep the dream of the 1950's alive! EVERY ROAD IS A HIGHWAY! TEA PARTY FOR LIFE!!! Are you a lawyer? Do you know one that wants to work for free? Perhaps for a bunch of shrill, hysterical crybabies over forty? Why should cyclists and pedestrians ever feel "comfortable" near cars? What gives them that right?? ENTITLEMENT!!! ARRORGANCE!!!

    YOU DESERVE UNLIMITED FREE PARKING! IT'S NOT FAIR!!! MORE RAGE CAPS!!! THROW yourself on the floor! Spin around! Pitch a TANTRUM! People in cars should never have to compromise or share! It's the AMERICAN WAY! You're not a Communist, are you???

    Do you have your own anecdote about a cyclist being rude? Present it as DATA! Did a pedestrian hold you up for five seconds? Were you MAD that YOU had to WAIT? Tell the area representatives! Raise your voice! Shout at them! Get screechy! So the SFMTA has "engineers" who hold "Masters Degrees" and "Professional Certificates"—<wbr>do not be fooled! YOUR IDEAS ABOUT TRAFFIC ENGINEERING ARE JUST AS GOOD AS THEIRS!

    *source SFPD

The San Francisco MTA is trying to modify Masonic Avenue to add bike lanes and trees and calm traffic, a plan that the local neighborhood association supports, Uppercasing reports (via Streetsblog).

But angry residents have posted flyers objecting to losing parking spaces and other complaints, which the parody flyer mocks:

Do you have your own anecdote about a cyclist being rude? Present it as DATA! Did a pedestrian hold you up for five seconds? Were you MAD that YOU had to WAIT? Tell the area representatives! Raise your voice!


Musk's Hyperloop math doesn't add up

On Monday, entrepreneur Elon Musk announced plans to build a design for a super-fast tube train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco. He believes his plan will obviate the need for the California High-Speed Rail. Unfortunately, his math doesn't add up.

Photo by the author.

The "Hyperloop" would be a pair of tubes stretching from Los Angeles to the Bay Area. Pods within these tubes would travel at up to 760 mph, making the trip between California's largest metro areas in 35 minutes. Musk says he became motivated to invent this technology because he grew disenchanted with the California High-Speed Rail project's expense ($53 billion in 2013 dollars) and sloth (it will travel at an average of 168 mph).

Musk claims the Hyperloop system could be built for just $6 billion, 10% of the cost of HSR. Some are wondering if this is a serious proposal or a ploy intended to derail the California High-Speed Rail project. Evidence seems to point to the latter. After all, the guy proposing this revolution in transit owns a car company.

The Hyperloop concept has gotten a lot of press over the past few days. It seems to have inspired the masses like an idea out of Popular Mechanics. And it may very well be possible to build a system much like this one. Perhaps one day in my lifetime, people will be taking Hyperloops all over the nation.

Hyperloop concept drawings. All images from Musk's proposal.

Let's set aside for the moment any discussion of the technical feasibility of this project. The Hyperloop may very well be something that we have the skills and know-how to build. It may even be desirable in some corridors. But the technological concept is only part of what Musk has proposed.

Musk suggests that for less than 10% of the cost of building the long-planned high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and San Francisco, we can invent and build an entirely new technology. But the Hyperloop doesn't actually make it to downtown LA or downtown San Francisco. It also has a maximum passenger capacity of just 10% of the HSR line. And it bypasses all of the intermediate population centers in central California that HSR will serve.

If it sounds too good to be true, you should probably double-check the math. And the math surrounding the Hyperloop definitely has problems.

Unrealistic promises?

According to Musk, pods would depart LA and San Francisco every 30 seconds during peak periods. Each pod can carry 28 passengers. That means that under the maximum throughput, the Hyperloop is capable of carrying 3,360 passengers each hour in each direction.

For context, a freeway lane can carry 2,000 cars per hour. A subway running at 3 minute headways (like the WMATA Red Line) can carry 36,000 passengers per hour. The California High Speed Rail, which this project is supposed to replace, will have a capacity of 12,000 passengers per hour.

That means that Musk's proposal can carry only 20-25% of the passengers of the California High-Speed Rail under ideal circumstances. But are those ideal circumstances reasonable? Probably not.

The Hyperloop pods will travel at up to 760 miles per hour, just under the speed of sound, with pods traveling about 30 seconds apart in the tube. They will have a maximum deceleration of 0.5 gs, which is equivalent to 10.9 mph per second. At that rate of braking, it will take a pod 68.4 seconds to come to a full stop.

That's a pretty significant issue because safe vehicle operation means never getting closer to the vehicle ahead than the distance it will take you to stop. If pod A were to experience a catastrophic air-skid failure, crash into the tube wall, and disintegrate, pod B, 30 seconds back, would not be able to stop short of the wreckage. In fact, pod C would also likely hit the wreckage of pods A and B.

That means that the minimum separation between pods is probably closer to 80 seconds or more. Not a big deal. It still means 45 departures per hour. But that's only 1,260 passengers per hour in capacity. That's 10% of what the California High-Speed Rail can carry.

With a capacity of 1,260 passengers per tube, that means that the Hyperloop would need 10 tubes in each direction (not 1) to move the same number of passengers as the proposed high-speed line. And that would push the cost up by 10, which is actually more than the cost of the HSR.


The maximum throughput of a transit line equals the throughput of the segment with the least capacity. Simply put, if we have a 2-track railway that has a long single-track segment, the whole line is limited by that section.

The Hyperloop will have chokepoints, too. Because the tubes will be kept at a near-vacuum, each station will have an airlock that trains pass through. Every time a pod arrives, it has to decelerate and stop. Then the airlock will have to close, pressurize, and open again. Then the pod has to clear the airlock. Then the airlock can close, depressurize, and then reopen.

A Hyperloop pod at a station.

All of that has to happen in less than 30 seconds (if Musk is to be believed) or 80 seconds if vehicles are kept a safe distance apart.

Meanwhile, Musk says that each station can have 3 pods on the platform at once. If pods arrive every 30 seconds, then passengers and baggage have to get off within 60 seconds. One arthritic passenger or a guy who goes back for the iPhone he left behind, and pods start backing up in the tube.

So clearly, Musk needs to rethink headways. The 30-second headway isn't feasible, meaning that his capacity will be significantly lower than he claims.

Maybe he can resolve that by using larger pods. But of course, a larger pod will weigh more. And that will probably mean using stronger steel for the tubes, which means that the cost will go up.

Apples to oranges

The California High-Speed Rail will whisk passengers from Los Angeles Union Station to the Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco in 2 hours and 48 minutes. That's too slow for Musk, and he says the Hyperloop can get you from Los Angeles to San Francisco in 35 minutes.

Proposed Hyperloop route. The line would stop short of both Los Angeles and San Francisco.

But the Hyperloop won't start in Los Angeles, and it won't end in San Francisco. Instead, it's proposed to start in Sylmar, 38 minutes north of Los Angeles Union Station aboard the Metrolink commuter train. That means it takes longer to get to the Hyperloop from downtown LA than it would take to go to San Francisco.

It's unclear where the Hyperloop would end. Some maps show the line crossing the San Francisco Bay either on or adjacent to the Bay Bridge. But his cost projections don't mention the expense of crossing the bay. Other maps show a terminal south of Oakland. So either his Bay Area station will be in the East Bay, requiring a transfer to BART to reach San Francisco, or he's lowballing the cost of the project. The 11-year long effort to rebuild the eastern span of the Bay Bridge has cost $6.3 billion, so another crossing won't be cheap.

Of course, there's nothing technically infeasible about extending the Hyperloop into downtown LA or San Francisco. But it would significantly increase the costs of the project. The California High-Speed Rail's sections in the San Joaquin Valley are also extremely cheap. If the HSR started in Sylmar and ended in Oakland, it would be significantly cheaper, too. While the cost of getting all the way downtown is already factored into the HSR project, it's not part of the Hyperloop proposal.


Musk's proposal won't actually get riders to the downtowns of Los Angeles or San Francisco. It can only carry around 10% of the capacity of the California High-Speed Rail. Additionally, it will bypass other population centers, like Bakersfield, Fresno, and San Jose.

Building a truly workable Hyperloop, if it's feasible at all, will be significantly more expensive than Musk claims. It might even be more expensive than the California HSR project. And Musk's proposal leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

The Hyperloop would run atop an elevated structure.

How did he come to his construction cost estimate in the first place? Musk argues that the Hyperloop is cheaper than HSR because it's elevated, saving on the cost of building at grade and reducing local opposition. But bridges are far more expensive than building tracks at grade. And just because the footprint is limited to a big pylon every 100 feet doesn't mean that the environmental impact analysis process will be any easier or that the public will be any more receptive.

Other issues, like seismic stability, are simply glossed over. He claims that by elevating the Hyperloop tracks, they will be more stable than ground-running HSR. Clearly he's unfamiliar with the Cypress Street Viaduct. That's one reason that the California High-Speed Rail Authority insists on crossing all faults at grade.

Musk also claims that his giant steel tube will be okay with the only expansion joints at the Los Angeles and San Francisco ends. They'll just be really big. That's a significant engineering issue that cannot simply be ignored, at least not if Musk is in any way serious about this proposal.

Realistically, the Hyperloop is just hype. The concept might be technically feasible. But Mr. Musk's proposal will cost a lot more and do a lot less than he claims it will. And clearly, it won't replace the high-speed rail project he hates so much. But it might just sell some Teslas.

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